Arbitrary Discipline at Columbia


On October 4, Jim Gilchrist and the Minutemen came and went from Columbia. I helped carry a banner reading "no human being is illegal" onto the stage. After making my visual statement, I was moved off the stage by a Columbia security guard, without saying anything or coming near any Minutemen. On October 6, President Lee Bollinger issued a press release which condemned the protesters at the event as as "brutish" violators of the University’s "sacrosanct and inviolable" commitment to free speech, and on October 12, his follow-up announcement that identified violators of University rules would be charged within a week. Like all his subsequent statements, these were silent on the activity of an organization that even President Bush acknowledges are anti-immigrant vigilantes.

Though on stage for less than a minute, I experienced an ensuing discipline process which lasted into March. Ultimately, the University placed a disciplinary warning on my transcript ­ the lightest formal punishment under the rules. That was a small victory for the right to protest, in the face of national right-wing media outlets’ calls for expulsion. But this victory was due to the hard work of dozens of student activists and thousands of letter writers who let the University know that harsher punishment would create a backlash, and not to any justice in Columbia’s disciplinary procedures.

Columbia’s handling of this process should concern us all. The procedures never included specific allegations about my actions or a consistent statement of the University’s underlying concerns. The alleged facts on which the University relied were not described until I walked into the hearing room. The case against me was made in secret, apparently by the administrative "prosecutor" making a private presentation to the dean who made the decision.

I heard nothing until December 1, when I received a letter informing me that I was under investigation for my actions on October 4, and summoning me to a meeting with the Rules Administrator, Steve Rittenberg. The letter threatened a list of generic charges, some with penalties of expulsion. I was to come to the meeting alone, separately from the other students charged, and without counsel or any witnesses. The letter gave no inkling of what the University thought I had done.

The meeting took place during reading week, just before finals and involved only myself, Rittenberg, and another administrator who silently took notes. Rittenberg refused to explain the delay, or tell me the detailed charges or the evidence against me. He refused to say on what basis the numerous disciplinary decisions within the University’s discretion would be made ­ though he did say explicitly that the criterion wasn’t actually a sacrosanct commitment to free speech (contra Bollinger), nor an interest in education (contrary to what I was later told).

On December 21, I was formally charged with "simple" violations of the Rules of University Conduct, which have a maximum penalty of censure. The Rules require that "in the case of charges of a simple violation of these Rules to be heard under Dean’s Discipline, the dean… shall schedule an interview with the respondent, such scheduling to occur within 48 hours of the filing of the charges". This did not occur.

On January 5, as I sat in suspense, another target of the investigation received a notification letter ­ by then three months after the fact.

On January 22, I was contacted about my hearing. Urgency had suddenly arrived; I was given less than 72 hours notice. I still had not heard the evidence against me, or the precise nature of the charges. I had been told that:

"You violated Section 443.a (1) by engaging in a protest on the stage of the Auditorium that placed others in danger of bodily harm. You violated Section 443.a (13) by contributing to the disruption of a lecture that was a University function as defined in Section 441.c of the Rules. You violated Section 443.a (21) by cooperating with others in violating Sections 443.a (1) and Section 443.a (13)."

I had some idea why the administration might think that my actions "contributed to" a disruption, if not why the description applied to me but not to the hundreds of audience members whose loud opposition to the content of Gilchrist’s speech interfered with the Minuteman founder’s ability to be heard. I had no idea how I could have put anyone in danger of bodily harm. As even the New York Times (December 23) and Columbia Magazine (Winter ’06-’07) have now acknowledged, it was the Minutemen ­ not the protesters ­ who resorted to violence on October 4.

I tried immediately to contact the administration to postpone the hearing and request more information on the charges. Eventually, I got a phone call from Morgan Levy, the Student Affairs official in charge of discipline. She said that the school had not decided whether to grant a postponement. She categorically refused to give me any more information on the charges, let alone allow me to see the evidence against me before the hearing. I was nevertheless expected to bring a written statement.

When I asked for an explanation, I was told "that’s how the procedure works." But when I pointed out that the University had violated its own rules, which required it to contact me about a hearing date by December 24, Levy, a law school graduate, told me I was being "too legalistic". She claimed that I misunderstood the process; it was "not adversarial", and (contra Rittenberg) "educational, not punitive". She did not explain how withholding information was educational. I was forbidden to bring a lawyer because legal habits would render the process hostile; Levy did not explain why this did not apply to her own legal training.

When Levy didn’t get back to me again by the night of January 23, I was able to get a lawyer to write the University a letter. Two hours after the administration received it on January 24, I was informed that the hearing could be postponed till February 12. The actual charges and evidence, however, remained secret. The administration refused to provide an explanation. I contacted my Class Dean and the Ombuds Office. Like me, neither could get an explanation for the secrecy policy.

Meanwhile, on February 5, yet another investigation letter went out. The investigation had now taken just over four months, though extensive video coverage of the protest had been available online within days. Columbia’s rules have no statute of limitations.

My hearing was presided over (and decided) by Levy and Chris Colombo, the Dean of Student Affairs. I asked procedural questions for a little while, until Colombo, obviously impatient, said it was time to move on. I could not determine what educational value was present for anybody besides the administration in a process where nothing was made public, where I could not obtain a statement of what specifically I did wrong, and where I was unable to get a clarification on the University’s interpretation of the rules. All I could learn about "interruption" and "disruption" was that "these terms have their plain meaning". I described my actions on October 4, and that was that.

On March 1, as I waited, Spectator reported that the University had reimbursed the Republicans for the cost of the event, and confirmed that the University had formally apologized to the Minutemen.

The decision on my case came this Monday. I was found innocent of endangering others, but guilty of the other two charges. No explanation was given.

Some may feel that the problems in the process are unimportant because the charges I faced were merely "simple". Though in fact I got off lightly, I do not agree. Even a "disciplinary warning" or "censure" could potentially have a serious material impact, from difficulty in finding a job because of a tainted transcript to the escalation of a minor future violation into expulsion. More, punishment for a political protest, especially a widely publicized one, has a broader chilling effect. It’s unconscionable to hand out such punishments casually.

I make no apology for my decision to climb the Roone Arledge stage in protest. The Minutemen are a group of armed racists, with open neo-Nazis in their ranks, who have taken it upon themselves to terrorize the most vulnerable people in our society, and who should be protested at every turn.

However, even those students who are not convinced of this, or who think immigrant rights supporters exceeded the limit of fair protest, should be profoundly disturbed by the failure on the part of the administration to provide due process. The Dean’s Discipline rules apply to Columbia disciplinary matters far beyond high profile political protests. Without change, many more students will face similarly arbitrary treatment.

DAVID JUDD can be reached at: david.a.judd@gmail.com


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